Raised as a farmer in a small Tibetan community in India, Dhondup Lhamo recognized from a young age the intricacies of plants and their powerful roles as engines of energy and economy.
“The maize grew taller than my siblings and me,” recalls Lhamo, a first-generation college student pursuing a doctorate in plant biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “During post-harvest, when the kernels are separated from the shank by a huge machine, the whole neighborhood united at our home to help with the process. I remember those days when our front yard was filled with dust from the machine as I served tea and snacks to the neighbors inside.”
In addition to her interest in crops, Lhamo cultivated a curiosity in medicinal plants as she watched her family utilize traditional, plant-based Tibetan medicine as therapies and cures for both minor and major maladies. This curiosity served as the springboard for her academic pursuit in biology.
“I wanted to know what was in the medicine that made it effective,” said Lhamo. “Today I remain very interested in researching plants of medicinal value to help eradicate the deadliest diseases. My ultimate goal as a researcher, however, is to enhance crop yield and quality so farmers can feed the growing population of the world while making a living for themselves and their families by farming. Farming for 16 years helped me understand the hardships farmers endure just to make a livable wage.”
This past summer, as a participant in the Research Participation Program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Lhamo learned skills and techniques from pipetting to publishing necessary to succeed in the scientific career she envisions.
Specifically, Lhamo focused on improving properties of guayule-based latex for automobile tires and other rubber applications. Guayule is a perennial hardwood shrub native to the North American Chihuahuan desert. This plant produces high-quality natural rubber and is being investigated as a domestic alternative to Hevea brasiliensis, a rubber tree endemic to South America, as well as petroleum-based synthetic rubber. Lhamo’s contributions were part of a larger, ongoing effort to enhance overall yield of the guayule shrub.
“A domestic source of natural rubber is crucial for national economic growth because the country depends entirely on foreign sources to meet rubber demands and spends millions of dollars annually for rubber imports,” said Lhamo.
The USDA-ARS Research Participation Program provides opportunities for students, postgraduates, established scientists and faculty to participate in programs, projects and activities at ARS-designated facilities to help ARS solve agricultural problems of high national priority. The program prepares a diverse and highly talented pool of scientists and engineers to address science, technology and policy issues, and to enhance the future scientific and technical workforce to be both knowledgeable and trained in fields of specific interest to ARS.
Under the mentorship of USDA chemist Colleen McMahan, Ph.D., Lhamo spent her days at the USDA’s Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) in Albany, California. She investigated ways to modify the physical and chemical properties of guayule. Because guayule is deficient in certain proteins, amino acids and lipids that give Hevea brasiliensis exceptionally superior rubber properties, Lhamo and other members of the Natural Rubber Group experimented with adding bio-based, commercial proteins to the guayule latex.
“Our approach was a simple ‘poke and hope,’ which involved trying different amino acids and proteins to enhance guayule properties,” said Lhamo. “I really enjoyed this freedom to do ‘trial and error’ multiple times. In research, it is okay to be wrong and start over.”
By the end of the summer, Lhamo and her team found that adding the appropriate proteins and antioxidants to the guayule latex significantly enhanced the plant’s natural rubber properties.
“We successfully accomplished our goal to a great extent,” said Lhamo, who presented the results at the 3rd Annual Biomass Research Development Initiative (BRDI) Technical Meeting in Pearsall, Texas. BRDI is a joint DOE/USDA program that provided financial support for the research. In addition, Lhamo’s first-authored article was published online in January 2017 in the Rubber Chemistry and Technology scientific journal and will be published in print in March.
Lhamo began her graduate studies at Berkeley shortly after her research at WRRC ended. Now a second-semester doctoral student, Lhamo is investigating the yield production of maize and rice and the medicinal benefits of foxglove, a summer-blooming plant with tubular flowers. She credits the USDA-ARS Research Participation Program for equipping her with skills in technical communication and instrumentation. These skills and others have helped her transition to higher-level research and education.
“Participating in this program was the best decision I’ve made,” said Lhamo. “I enjoyed working on a flexible schedule, reading scientific papers, collaborating with colleagues on other research projects, and most importantly, solving problems to benefit society and the world. After all, since adolescence I’ve learned that if people unite and work together as a community, anything can be accomplished.”
The USDA-ARS Research Participation Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed by ORAU under a contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.